Here in Chianti, in the heart of Tuscany, the weather has turned very cold, all the way down to zero Celsius, and there’s rumor of snow in the mountain passes as I write. It’s unusual for such freezing weather in October, but I’ve seen unusual weather frequently during my past four months of travel. Locals are calling this cold front, The Russian Wind, a chilling blast that drives one indoors.

But there’s no sense sitting inside the cold stone cottage I’ve rented, which is too expensive to heat, and indeed, to drafty to keep even lukewarm given the energy restrictions placed on residences throughout Italy in an attempt to slow energy consumption. Getting used to the cold is the future I imagine.

I put on my scarf, leather gloves, leather coat and boots, and a woolen ski cap, and head out into the world of hilltop villages with their familiar walled fortresses and somber views of neighboring hilltop villages that have their own walled fortresses and somber views of you. The ebb and flow of power, the rise and demise of kingdoms, the life and death of mortal men throughout centuries of struggle are as cyclical here in the Tuscan hills and valleys as are the revolving seasons themselves.

It is remarkable to me just how much artistry and architecture the Etruscans, Romans, and Medieval Italians put into their defensive fortifications to protect what was theirs and to keep others from entering their kingdom. As I stand shivering on a windy and starkly beautiful lookout tower that rises above the perfectly preserved castle walls of Monteriggioni, which encircle the entire hill top, I look north to Florence and pretend for a moment that I am cloaked in boar hides with bronze helmet, sword, and shield, on guard duty, scanning the horizon for the Florentine armies that regularly attacked this armed outpost.

Today, of course, Florence is known not for its territorial conquests but for its aesthetic ones. Indeed, the travel guides often refer to it as the jewel of the Italian renaissance, crowned by the architectural splendor of the Duomo of San Lorenzo with perhaps the greatest dome ever conceived and built. Then there are the treasures of the Uffizi museum and the Pitti Palace, which was the shamefully grand residence of the Medici dynasty that unified the fighting families of Florence and single-handedly, or should I say with a single-pocket book, provided the support and milieu for a host of Renaissance masters ranging from Dante’ to Michelangelo to Donatello. This was a powerful family…their court mathematician was Galileo himself!

But I am not much of a travel guide reader, nor a travel guide writer, and I have come to Florence today with only two works of art in mind, two out of the thousands that greet the eye the moment you arrive. I have come to see one painting, The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. Beauty and Love. Two aspects of a single promise of purity. Easily given and easily lost in the real world of my heart.

The Birth of Venus is at the Uffizi Gallery. The Goddess of love is born in a storm on the Aegean Sea in this vision of Botticelli’s, and is blown safely ashore by the expiring winds. I stand here in the crowded hall, a mix of languages filling the mouths of onlookers around me, my heart suddenly starting to race. The power of this painting comes upon me slowly, steadily, as my temperature begins to rise and I honestly begin to feel flushed, unsteady, scanning the hall for a place to sit down.

I plop onto a cane bottomed chair at the side of the museum hall, Venus still visible in the distance. Her blond hair blowing aside, the graceful arc of her body held aloof in the scalloped shell at her feet. The tranquility of this painting turns loose the flood of emotions that I feel now as I close my eyes. I take a deep breath. Another breath. Slowly. In…out. In…out.

Her name was Betty, my first Venus. She was chubby and adorable, in a way that being seven years old makes possible. She had olive skin and dark hair, the opposite of my blond and pale complexion. She wore black patent leather shoes with shiny black straps edged in brilliant white stitching, and accented with small, decorative pink ribbon flowers, one of which was slightly frayed at the edge.

She wore also a charm bracelet on her left wrist of sparkling butterflies, dragonflies, and even ladybugs, some in sliver, others in colored glass, dangling from silver ringlets on a linked chain of delicate beads, my first look at beauty and art combined. When she tapped me on the shoulder, the tinkling of those charms sounded like wind chimes in a summer breeze.

I knew at once that I liked her more than she liked me, more than she was capable of liking me. I was looking for a one true love for me, unequivocal, undivided, purely mine. Someone for whom I alone was enough. Not a father who loved a mother and then me. Not a mother who loved a father and then me. But one who just loved me. All for me. It was a lot to need. Betty just needed someone to sit next to her at lunchtime.

And so we ate lunch together. She had a Snow White and Seven Dwarfs lunch box with a thermos of very cold milk and an Oscar Meyer bologna sandwich on Wonder Bread, which she gladly traded for my roast beef, tough as leather, that my mother sliced in chunks from last night’s leftovers and put between buttered slices of pumpernickel. My brown lunch bag may have crushed my potato chips and banana, but it couldn’t make a dent in the pumpernickel.

Betty liked tearing off a bite of the brick-beef sandwich with her crystal white teeth, then loudly sucking milk through her straw into her mouth and making movements like a fish breathing until she got the concrete bread softened up enough to chew.

I made a funny face and tickled her and she spit the whole colorful, mushy mess onto the lunch table in front of us. She is cute as can be, a rivulet of milk inching down her chin, and the tableful of kids comes alive in laughter. I laugh as well, the master of ceremonies at this luncheon with love by my side.

At home on Aveneda Oriente that weekend, all us neighborhood kids play Fox ‘N Hounds, a group hide and seek game that spans two complete blocks. Jamie, Eileen, and my sister, Mary, are on one team. Nancy, Jenny, and I on the other. Our team’s hiding first as Jamie hangs an arm over the shoulder of Mary and Eileen and they ring a tree in his front yard, counting to 100 out loud and slowly as we take off in three directions.

There’s strength in separating, strength in being alone, hiding in your own secret place, where no one can find you, where no one can uncover you, then racing back to tag the tree and call home-safe.

I’m scrunched down in my favorite place along the bushes that line Mrs. Teal’s fence and that seem too shallow to hide a body, but actually have a hidden pocket, or ledge, at their base that I drop down into.

No one has ever found me in here before, but now I hear the bushes creaking and someone is crawling my way. It’s Nancy.

“Get out,” I mouth to her. “Get out!”

She shakes her head, “No,” and scoots into the pocket with me.

I can smell her hair as her head tips in my direction, and I feel the warm puff of her breath, like dust on lemon leaves. I move over as much as possible, but she moves with me. She smiles at me. I frown at her. Then she leans in and kisses me on the lips and tries to take my hand. I jerk back as if from an electric shock.

“I have a girlfriend already,” I say without even thinking what I’m saying. “Her name is Betty.”

“You can have two girlfriends,” Nancy says. “They’re not wives,” and she tries to kiss me again.

“No you can’t!” I say, though I really don’t know if you can have two girlfriends or not. I only know that Betty is all I want, and all I want to want me.

I push Nancy hard away from me, and she pushes me back. Jamie suddenly comes stomping through the bushes and my best hiding place in all the world is revealed and lost to me forever.

“Anyone ever tell you to keep your mouth shut when you’re hiding?” he shakes his head at me.

When Monday comes, I wait for Betty at my place at the lunch table. I’m excited because I have convinced my mom to buy Graham Crackers and to make peanut butter and jelly squares with the crackers like I saw on TV. They soften up real fast in milk and are the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I want to share them with her.

But Betty doesn’t come out of the classroom. I wait and I wait. Still, she doesn’t appear.

After lunchtime is over, and we are released into the playground for a half-hour of shouting, shoving, and chaos, I see her. She’s sitting on a bench over by the handball court.

She’s too far away for me to hear her voice, but I see her head tilted back laughing. The boy next to her is laughing, too, as he tickles her again. When she reaches over to playfully push his arm away, her charm bracelet glints in the sun, shining in the carelessness of her gesture.

Then she turns and sees me watching her. I’m sure she does. But she doesn’t wave or call out to me. Instead, she turns back to him, and they run off to the tether ball court, skipping and teasing in the awful glow of the sun.


3 Responses to Falling For Love (short story)

  1. Tessie says:

    I tried to use your RSSFEED but it displays me some crazy xml errors…

  2. Kalindi says:

    I agree but of course this isnt the case… another question: what would you do if I won 2 billion dollar?

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